At the time of Hajj – the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca – and the ensuing Eid al-Adha festival, it is an opportune moment to demonstrate the beauty and diversity of Islamic art – namely its homage to the sacred city of Mecca, the holiest city in Islam and the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad.
Whilst disrupted in the last two years due to the global pandemic, every year Muslims from around the world traditionally arrive in Saudi Arabia and perform a series of elaborate rites which take place during five days of Dh'l-Hijjah, the twelfth month of the Islamic calendar. Hajj begins with a visit to the Ka'bah in Mecca – the cuboid structure that is the most sacred site in Islam – at the Masjid al-Haram mosque and culminates on the Plain of Arafat a short distance away.
Using art from The Khalili Collections – which includes the world's largest and most significant collection of objects relating to Mecca and Medina – take a look at how Mecca has been depicted in various artistic mediums and at various points and places in Islamic history. Discover how the iconic holy sanctuary in Mecca has been portrayed in metalwork, ceramics, painting, manuscript illuminations, photography and installations.
You can also learn more about Mecca and the cultural history of the Hajj through a new 360-degree digital experience at The Khalili Collections website.
Textiles relating to Mecca and Medina are usually associated with the intricately produced coverings of the holy shrines (kiswahs). These usually focus on finely embroidered calligraphy, mainly Quranic verses, and floral and geometric designs. But this sixteenth-century Indian talismanic shirt, whilst being inscribed with extracts from the Qur'an and prayers, also has representations of the two Holy Sanctuaries at Mecca and Medina.
Mecca is depicted (on the top right) in a very similar style to the schematic illustrations of Mecca found in contemporary manuscripts and pilgrimage certificates. Such a shirt would have been worn by senior military commanders under their amours as a source of spiritual protection.
The ceramic tiles of Iznik are world-renowned for their distinct beauty. Made from stonepaste and decorated underglaze in cobalt, this small panel along the lower edge of the tile is inscribed with the name of its owner, Etmekçi-zade Mehmed Pasha. It depicts Mecca in a similar fashion to its contemporary manuscript illuminations.
An identical tile bearing the same name can be seen on the exterior of the Rüstem Pasha mosque in Istanbul.
Scientific instruments such as compasses and astrolabes were fundamental to the history of Mecca, in which direction all Muslims face to pray.
This Qibla indicator consists of a European map showing the landmass north of the equator with a magnetic compass and an additional pointer at Mecca. Below it is a list of countries and cities with their coordinates.
The top of the box has a painting of the sanctuary at Mecca together with instructions written in Ottoman Turkish. Two very similar instruments, signed by Barut, are in the Topkapi Saray Museum and the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art, Istanbul. A third is in the Islamic Art Museum, Cairo.
Notable oil paintings of Mecca were not very common in the history of Islam. This painting, with the Masjid al-Haram at its centre, is of Mecca and the surrounding countryside.
It appears to be a copy of an oil painting of around 1710–1712, which is now in the collection of Uppsala University and which has been in Sweden since 1714. As remarked by M. Tütüncü, how a Turkish artist gained access to the Uppsala painting, or why he copied it, remains a mystery.
As with many civilisations, coins and medallions played an important part in the cultural history of Islam.
The depiction of Mecca on one side of this gold medallion (Medina is on the other) includes a view of the Holy Sanctuary with the words of the Shahadah (the profession of Islamic faith) above it. Below it are the words 'Makkah Mukarramah' (Mecca, the honoured'). In the background is Mount Arafat. The depiction of Mecca here is probably adapted from contemporary Ottoman manuscript illustrations.
The late nineteenth century saw the advent of photographic depictions of Mecca. Muhammad Sadiq Bey was the first person to take photographs of Mecca, Medina and the Hajj.
For the first time, the pilgrimage and the holy cities were precisely and realistically documented – and Collection de Vues Photographiques de La Mecque et de Médine, consisting of 12 views of Mecca, Medina and the stations of pilgrimage that included four panoramas, was presented as a portfolio album in 1881 in Venice at the Third International Congress of Geographers, where Bey was awarded a gold medal for his work. This photograph is one of the prized panoramas.
Few know about the cultural history of Chinese Muslims and their pilgrimages to Mecca. This painting of Mecca painted by Ma Chao in scroll format was possibly part of a pilgrimage certificate.
The painting shows the Ka'bah in traditional fashion, draped in its black kiswah with its door half-covered by a sitarah. The various structures within the mosque, identified by red captions, include the Bab al-Salam (Gate of Peace), the Maqsurat Ibrahim (which used to house the Maqam Ibrahim), the minbar, the hatim, and the Black Stone. The composition here can be seen as distinctly Chinese-Islamic.
Modern artists have responded to the city of Mecca using a range of innovative mediums. Saudi artist and doctor Ahmed Mater developed an installation (and accompanying photogravures) whereby a single black cuboid magnet (representing the Ka'bah) sets in motion tens of thousands of iron particles that form a single swirling nimbus (representing pilgrims circumambulating the Ka'bah).
Ahmed Mater's Magnetism— Islam & Science (@IslamScienceNet) October 23, 2020
In the swirl of Ahmed's magnetized particles and the orbitings of the Mecca pilgrims are intimations of the whirl of planets, the gyre of galaxies (terrestrial and celestial tawaf).
Over the centuries, countless pilgrims and explorers have written about how enchanted they were by the Holy City. But artists are unique in that they develop a visual history – one that not only records data but inspires the mind's eye.
Today, despite images of Mecca being available to people worldwide, many people find a spiritual connection to the place through the great art that it inspired. No doubt new artistic mediums will emerge – including digital art, virtual reality and robotics – that will open up new ways of perceiving Mecca, but they will only serve to reinforce its timelessness.
Waqās Ahmed, Artistic Director of The Khalili Collections